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A Comparison of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Defensemen

By: Byron Nelson (aka: DefenseWinsChampionships)

Bored at work on a Monday afternoon, I found myself wondering which current Maple Leafs’ defenseman had the best season in 2009/2010. While the obvious pick would be a flashy, high point-producing player like Tomas Kaberle or Dion Phaneuf, it seemed as if a greater deal of investigation would be required to come up with an informative answer. Needless to say, investigate is exactly what I did.

First off, I must apologize for leaving Jeff Finger out of the comparison. No, I did not forget the seldom-used, overpaid, Fletcher signee, but rather excluded him due to a lack of playing time. For much of my statistical analysis, I use the “x/60 minutes” variable. This is when a player’s value in any given statistic is divided by the amount of 60-minute divisions that can be taken out of their total Time-On-Ice during the entire NHL season. (For example, if a player played 1,200 minutes of ice-time throughout the season, their TOI/60 (Time-On-Ice/60) would be 20. This helps keep the analysis of raw stats like goals and assists on a level playing field, as it is obvious that a player who plays less ice-time, and/or fewer games, will generally have lower numbers. Unfortunately, Finger’s TOI/60 value was below 10.00, which I felt was too low, and therefore too high of a risk-factor when comparing players.

With Finger out of the picture, we are left with seven defensemen expecting to play significant time in the NHL this upcoming season. These players are: Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, and Brett Lebda.

To begin my analysis, I checked each player’s Goals/60 minutes (G/60), Assists/60 minutes (A/60), Points/60 minutes (PTS/60), Hits/60 minutes (H/60), and Blocked Shots/60 minutes (BS/60). Rather than just figuring out these numbers, and trying to use their raw values in determining how good each player was in a given area, I decided to look a little bit deeper. I added every individual player’s value together in each separate statistic in order to come up with a Total x/60 for all the players combined, or Tx/60. I then divided each player’s individual number by the team’s total, in order to obtain the player’s Percentage of Total x/60, or %x/60.

In case anyone is getting lost, here is an example: Let’s say Player A had an individual G/60 value of 1.25 and that the sum of 7 players’ G/6o numbers was 5.00. Since 1.25/5.00 is 0.2500, Player A would have a %G/60 of 25.00%.

Here are the %x/60 rankings, (including the raw x/60 numbers), for the players in each statistic:

GOALS/60:

Player G/60 %G/60

Dion Phaneuf                          0.37                 30.08%

Tomas Kaberle                        0.23                 18.70%

Luke Schenn                            0.23                 18.70%

Carl Gunnarsson                     0.20                 16.26%

Francois Beauchemin             0.14                 11.38%

Brett Lebda                             0.06                 04.88%

Mike Komisarek                      0.00                 00.00%

ASSISTS/60:

Player A/60 %A/60

Tomas Kaberle                        1.37                 29.21%

Carl Gunnarsson                     0.78                 16.63%

Dion Phaneuf                          0.61                 13.01%

Francois Beauchemin             0.60                 12.79%

Luke Schenn                            0.54                 11.51%

Brett Lebda                             0.44                 09.38%

Mike Komisarek                      0.35                 07.46%

POINTS/60:

Player PTS/60 %PTS/60

Tomas Kaberle                        1.37                 29.21%

Dion Phaneuf                          0.98                 16.50%

Carl Gunnarsson                     0.98                 16.50%

Luke Schenn                            0.77                 12.96%

Francois Beauchemin             0.75                 12.63%

Brett Lebda                             0.51                 08.59%

Mike Komisarek                      0.35                 05.89%

HITS/60:

Player H/60 %H/60

Luke Schenn                            7.79                 25.39%

Mike Komisarek                      7.52                 24.51%

Dion Phaneuf                          5.93                 19.33%

Carl Gunnarsson                     2.99                 09.75%

Francois Beauchemin             2.53                 08.25%

Brett Lebda                             2.48                 08.08%

Tomas Kaberle                        1.44                 04.69%

BLOCKED SHOTS/60:

Player BS/60 %BS/60

Mike Komisarek                      5.49                 18.90%

Luke Schenn                            5.22                 17.98%

Carl Gunnarsson                     5.01                 17.25%

Francois Beauchemin             4.45                 15.32%

Tomas Kaberle                        3.21                 11.05%

Dion Phaneuf                          3.06                 10.54%

Brett Lebda                             2.60                 08.95%

With these statistics collected, it appears at first glance that some conclusions can be made. For example, with very high rankings in the three offensive categories, and a steep contrast in the two defensive categories, it can be said that Tomas Kaberle is a purely offensive defenseman. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, is Mike Komisarek, who was fantastic in the defensive stats, but dismal offensively.

The most interesting thing I noticed, however, was the comparison that can be drawn between Carl Gunnarsson and Francois Beauchemin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that Gunnarsson is just slightly better than Beauchemin in every category:

Player G/60 A/60 PTS/60 H/60 BS/60

Gunnarsson                             0.20     0.78       0.98      2.99     5.01

Beauchemin                            0.14     0.60       0.75      2.53     4.45

If anything can be determined by these results, it’s that Carl Gunnarsson and Francois Beauchemin play similar styles of hockey. Neither of them scored many goals, but both had a good amount of assists. Neither of them were big hitters, but both had a fairly impressive number of blocked shots. I’m not going to go ahead and say that Gunnarsson is already a better player, but he definitely played better last year, and apparently plays the same style as Beauchemin. Add to that the fact that Gunnarsson was a rookie last year, and only 23-years-old, and he definitely has the potential to be better, Swedish version of Beauchemin. This, in my opinion at least, would be a great turnout for the former 7th round pick. The only real differences between their styles of play are the intangibles. Beauchemin is a good leader, but can sometimes try and do too much, while Gunnarsson is a lot quieter, but is very calm with or without the puck.

Getting back to the overall comparison, it is useful to keep in mind that some players, while not scoring particularly high in any given statistic, play a great all-around game. To try and decide which players were the best in this regard, I took the %x/60 in every statistic, and added them together for each individual player. The result is a Total Percentage Rating, or %Total. Here are the values of this sum for each player:

Player %Total

Tomas Kaberle                        90.59%

Dion Phaneuf                          89.46%

Luke Schenn                            86.54%

Carl Gunnarsson                     79.39%

Francois Beauchemin             60.37%

Mike Komisarek                      56.76%

Brett Lebda                             39.88%

As you can see, even with low defensive numbers, Kaberle was so far above everyone else offensively, that he still finished at the top of the list. Dion Phaneuf being near the top is no surprise, as he is known as a star “hybrid” defender. What may be surprising, however, is Luke Schenn’s appearance in third place. This can be attributed to his very high defensive statistics, along with competence in the offensive categories. Pretty impressive numbers for a guy who was said to have a “sophomore slump” this season. I for one never thought he played bad, but suffered early on in the season as a result of both a lack of chemistry with Francois Beauchemin, and the fact that he was used as a scapegoat whenever their defensive pairing made a bad play. I thought the mistakes looked to belong to Beauchemin more often than not, as he seemed to be trying too hard to contribute offensively, often pinching when the situation was right for it and leaving Schenn “hung out to dry”. As you can see, Beauchemin also had much lower statistical numbers than Schenn. It is no surprise that Gunnarsson is above Beauchemin, as we already went over the fact that he bested him in every category. Mike Komisarek’s 6th place finish contains no shock-value either, as he is purely one-dimensional. Brett Lebda rates significantly lower than the rest of the field, which is to be expected from a depth defenseman.

As telling as the above statistics may be, I could not stop my analysis there. There is one more major category I need to include, and that is plus-minus. The only problem with this stat is that it is affected more by your whole team than individual play, hence why teams like Chicago can be almost all plus-players, while the majority of players on teams like Toronto and Edmonton are deep into the minus column. The solution: compare each player’s +/- number to those of his teammates. Sounds simple enough, but there is an extra level of statistical manipulation that needs to take place in order to receive the most accurate results.

Players spend different amounts of their ice-time with different teammates, simple as that. So, I have come up with, (and have used on MLHS before), a stat I like to call Comparative Plus-Minus, or CPM. The value for this statistic is derived by taking a player’s percentages of even-strength ice-time played with each different teammate, and using it as a weight ratio to find out the plus-minus of a player’s average line mate, (in this case, defensive partner), so that can then be subtracted from the player’s own plus-minus. This is done in order to see if he had a better or worse number than his average defensive partner.

For example, let’s say that Player A had a plus-minus of +3, and that he only played with two different defensive partners at even-strength throughout the season. If he played 75% of his ice-time with Player B, who has a plus-minus of -3, and 25% with Player C, who has a plus-minus of +7, his CPM would be +3.5, a positive and therefore solid rating. This is determined by Player B’s -3 being multiplied by 0.75, and Player C’s +7 being multiplied by 0.25, then both of the products being added together, and the sum finally being subtracted from Player A’s own plus-minus. The 0.75 and 0.25 come into the equation as a result of the 75% and 25% of Player A’s ice-time that Players B and C shared, respectively. This gives a value of -0.50, which comes from this equation:

(-3*0.75) + (7*0.25) = (-2.25 + 1.75) = -0.50

The -0.50 value indicates that Player A’s average defensive partner, or ADP, was -0.5. As you can see, he had a higher plus-minus than his average partner, with a +3 rating. The ADP number is then subtracted from Player A’s own plus-minus, resulting in the difference between him and his average defensive partner, his CPM. I hope you’re still following me. Here are the CPM ratings for the Leafs’ defensemen:

Player CPM

Carl Gunnarsson                     +17.1806

Luke Schenn                            +10.1440

Mike Komisarek                      +06.3332

Brett Lebda                             +03.4058

Dion Phaneuf                          +03.0231

Francois Beauchemin             -12.2451

Tomas Kaberle                        -13.2464

Just to clarify, I used Dion Phaneuf’s teammates from both Toronto and Calgary when coming up with his CPM. And no, I didn’t make his Leafs teammates as valuable to his result as his Calgary teammates. His Leafs teammates accounted for only 33% of his CPM, the Calgary ones 67%, due to 67% of Dion’s total even-strength ice-time being played in Calgary, followed by 33% in Toronto.

Carl Gunnarsson is far above anyone on the list, as can be expected by his team-leading +8. The CPM doesn’t go exactly in the same order as the raw plus-minus numbers, however. Mike Komisarek, who was a dismal -8 last season, managed to finish 3rd with a fairly high CPM. This is due to him playing the majority of his ice-time with Tomas Kaberle, who was the worst player on the Leafs in terms of plus-minus. Schenn, who finished 3rd in the %Total stat earlier, stayed strong with a 2nd place finish in CPM. He had the second best plus-minus, and was also stuck playing with big minus players as defensive partners. It is interesting to note that he was the leader among Leafs in how much time he spent with Garnett Exelby, whom we can all agree is a less-than-stellar defenseman.

To try and come up with a conclusion, I decided it would be best if I added each player’s CPM to their %Total, coming up with a final rating for the player. Here are those ratings:

Player %Total CPM Final Rating

Luke Schenn                            86.54%                        +10.1440                         96.68

Carl Gunnarsson                     76.39%                        +17.1806                         93.57

Dion Phaneuf                          89.46%                        +03.0231                         92.48

Tomas Kaberle                        90.59%                        -13.2464                          77.34

Mike Komisarek                      56.76%                        +06.3332                         63.09

Francois Beauchemin             60.37%                        -12.2451                          48.12

Brett Lebda                             39.88%                        +03.4058                         43.29

Needless to say, the results are surprising. The three youngest players occupy the top-3 spots on the list. If that’s not a positive sign going forward, I don’t know what is. And I’m not going to go ahead and say that Schenn is already the best defenseman on the Leafs, but to do that well in a year where he supposedly went through a “sophomore slump” is impressive to say the least. If he can put up numbers like this while in a slump, imagine what he’ll do in his third full season, a year older, and in a contract year. And don’t rule out the impact of having a legitimate leadership presence in Dion Phaneuf for a whole season, because Schenn definitely improved after his arrival last season. Gunnarsson and Phaneuf are neck-and-neck in 2nd and 3rd place respectively, preceding a large drop before the second-half ghost Kaberle, injured Komisarek, and slumping Beauchemin make their appearances. Lebda surprises nobody at the bottom of the least.

By far the most exciting conclusion I can draw after going through all of this research, is that the Leafs defense should be much better next year. Almost every player is poised for improvement. I already mentioned how the 20-year-old Luke Schenn is coming off of a supposed “sophomore slump”, and is going into only his 3rd NHL season, one which is a contract year. Gunnarsson is also very young, at 23, and will be entering only his first full season with the Leafs. Both Schenn and Gunnarsson have lots of potential, and showed this past season that they are already solid players. Phaneuf moves back up to the top of the defensive depth chart for a full season, after being bumped by Bouwmeester in Calgary, and is coming off of a year where he experienced a slight slump. Also, he is similar to Schenn and Gunnarsson in that he hasn’t even hit his prime yet. If Kaberle, who is still in his prime, albeit the latter stages, signs an extension, maybe the security of knowing he’s going to remain a Leaf will allow us to see a full season of the skill he showed in the first half last year. Komisarek finally smartened up and got surgery to repair his nagging injury, and is looking to come back stronger than ever, just entering his prime. Beauchemin, who is in his prime, should definitely have a bounce-back year after a rough first season as a Leaf. Maybe he’ll have gotten used to being in Toronto now that he’s played a year there, and won’t try to do too much like he did a lot of last season. And finally, Brett Lebda can’t really go anywhere but up, as he is currently regarded as just a depth defenseman. Things are looking up in Leaf land.

I guess it’s time to answer my question of which defenseman had the best 09/10 season. As you may assume by the statistical results, I’m going to pick Luke Schenn. And no, I’m not saying that the stats are proof that he had the best season, but they at least show that he was the biggest surprise, and the most underrated. That goes a long way in my opinion, as Leafs’ players tend to take a significant amount of unnecessary criticism, from both the largest fan base, and the largest “hate base” in the NHL. Watch him this year. The guy is a definite keeper.

Thanks for reading; I know it was a long one.

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